Franz Litz – Obama’s Clean Car Revolution

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The past few years have been difficult ones for those of us who hoped an Obama presidency would mean the United States would finally face up to the challenge of climate change. Sure, Obama got off to a good start.  The stimulus package was the single biggest investment in clean energy and energy efficiency the nation has ever seen. Obama was the first president to actually attend international climate change negotiations in December of 2009, where he made a political promise to move the country in the right direction. We also came close to getting comprehensive national climate change legislation before the backlash of the mid-term elections sent the entire political establishment running for cover.

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And then, as with so many other national priorities stymied by political gridlock, on climate change and clean energy we watched as “Oh yes we can!” gave way to smaller hopes for incremental change. It didn’t help, of course, that the Republican majority in the House made it its mission to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job.

The good news is that the EPA has not only continued to do the job of protecting human health and the environment, it is now poised to take the single biggest step toward reducing our dependence on oil and reducing our global warming pollution in American history.

America will soon be known for its clean cars.

Beginning shortly after taking office, President Obama brought together the automakers, United Auto Workers, the states, EPA and Department of Transportation to agree on a path forward on global warming pollution from cars and trucks, and vehicle fuel economy. The results are in two landmark agreements to improve the fuel efficiency of new cars and trucks.

If all goes according to plan, in 2025 the average new passenger car and light truck will get the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon. You heard me right: the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon. This is nothing short of a revolution in vehicle efficiency.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the new standards will cut consumption of oil by as much as 1.5 million barrels a day, or 23 billion gallons of gasoline each year by 2030.  In other words, about the same as the U.S. imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010. Imagine the independence.

I know what you are thinking. What is all this new efficiency going to cost me when I buy a car?  It’s true that these clean cars will incorporate technologies that will increase the initial cost of a new car, but according the government estimates the fuel savings over the life of the average vehicle will provide a net savings of between $3,000 and $4,400 per vehicle. Even those of you who finance vehicles over 5 years will realize an average net improvement to cash flow on a monthly basis while you are paying back the car loan.  That’s at current gas prices. When gas prices go up, so will the savings.  No matter how you slice it, we’ll be better off.  No wonder the car companies and the auto workers and the states reached these unprecedented agreements.

What will this clean car future look like? In addition to having more money in our pockets, there will be more electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road.  Not just cars but trucks.  More clean diesel vehicles and even clean diesel plug-in hybrids.  And maybe even some vehicles we cannot imagine as we sit here today.

So Obama hasn’t solved the climate change problem in his first 3 years in office. We did hope for more.  But what we got is a better start on the problem than any previous President was able to deliver.

Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.

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